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Italian Syntax

Trials and Tribulations of Word Order and Translation

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From the study of the musicality of languages (phonology) to the rules which govern the internal structure of words (morphology) we move to that branch of linguistics which focuses on the rules that govern words in larger structures (phrases and sentences, for example). This study is known as syntax. According to the definition provided by Giorgio Graffi in his book Sintassi, syntax is the study of combinations of words and why some combinations are permissible in a particular language, while others are not.

When speaking about morphology, I demonstrated that English is a morphologically poor language. The phrase "talk" is incomplete; there is no way of knowing who is talking because the subject has been omitted. On the other hand, the Italian "parlo" is a complete thought because the subject is embedded within the verb itself. Due to the fact that English verbs do not contain as much information about who is completing the action, English must rely heavily on word order in order for its meaning to remain clear.

Here is an example taken from the introduction to Italian linguistics: "Dog bites man." No native of English would blink twice at a sentence such as this one. Although the word "bites" does not itself contain information about who is biting whom, the word order takes care of this clarification. In such a small sentence, word order is strict and inflexible. Note what happens when we make any changes: "Man bites dog" has a completely different meaning while another arrangement—"Bites dog man"—has no meaning at all and is not grammatically acceptable.

However, in Latin, these three sentences would not have differed greatly despite their word order. The reason for this is that Latin used case endings (morphemes which indicate the role of a word within a sentence). As long as the correct ending was used, placement in the sentence would not have been as important. While the grammatical rules of Italian are not quite as flexible as they were in Latin, there is still more room to maneuver than in English. Such a simple sentence of three words—"dog," "bites," and "man"—does not leave enough room to maneuver, so to demonstrate word order flexibility in Italian, we will look at a slightly longer one.

Let us examine the sentence, "The man, who the dogs bit, is tall." The part of this sentence on which we will be concentrating, is the phrase "who the dogs bit." In Italian the sentence would read "L'uomo che i cani hanno morso è alto." However, in Italian it is also grammatically correct to say: "L'uomo, il cui braccio hanno morso i cani, è alto." On the other hand, to change the word order in English would result in "The man, who bit the dogs, is tall" and would change the meaning completely.

While Italian allows some flexibility within word order, other formations—such as noun-adjective phrases—are stricter. For example, the phrase "the old suit" is always translated as "l'abito vecchio" and never as "il vecchio abito." This is not an absolute rule, however in cases where the noun and adjective may change position, the meaning changes, even if only subtly. Changing the phrase "la pizza grande" to "la grande pizza" alters the meaning from "the large pizza" to "the grand pizza." It is for this reason that translation is so incredibly difficult and is very rarely an exact science. Those who try to translate phrases such as "keep it real" or "just do it" into Italian for a tattoo will acknowledge frustration at the loss or change of meaning.

The beauty of languages lies not in their similarities, but in their differences. Growing accustomed to the new structures of foreign languages will broaden your means of expressing yourself, not only in Italian, but in English as well. Furthermore, while most phrases lose some meaning in their translation, the further you take your studies, the more unique phrases you will discover in Italian that defy translation to English.

About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.
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